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Notes On Three Nineteenth
These notes come as an addendum to The Doocots of Caithness (1), the buildings having been identified during the summer of 1982.
SANDSIDE HOUSE, REAY PARISH (map ref. NC953653)
Incorporated, as a later addition, in the NW angle of the walled garden lying to the north of Sandside House, is a square dovecote. It stands approximately 16' high (4.90m), rising just above the garden walls, with a pyramidal graded Caithness slate roof, square apex finial and weather-vane. Like other fine garden walling and estate buildings at Sandside, the cote is of good quality local rubble masonry with neat long/short angle detailing. On plan the building measures 12' x 12' (3.65 x 3.65m) with a door in the centre of the south elevation. Internally it is divided horizontally into ground floor room and loft, the latter reached by a simple wooden ladder.
Other than its overall size and shape, coupled with the fact that it is called the dovecote on the estate, there is little to associate this building with a conventional dovecote designed to rear and house birds destined for the table. No symmetrical grouping of flightholes, either in the walls or roof, and no nesting boxes lining the interior. There are two small off centre vents in the south side, and a single one in the east, both without alighting ledges, giving access to the loft at a little above floor level. Two rectangular openings approximately 2' wide by 1' high (60 x 30cm) open from the ground floor chamber in the west side and there is a similar vent in the north. These openings are closed inside with plain shutters fastened with swivel pins.
One of the final phases of pigeon husbandry was to use the captive birds for marksmanship. They were released from traps as targets in order that sportsmen might improve their aim (2), a practice which died out towards the end of the nineteenth century when it was deemed "of lowly origin", or even because the advice given in 1892 that "it is wise to shoot pigeons at recognised clubs only ..... or experience at the trap may be very dearly bought" (3) was not sufficiently heeded! The nomenclature has survived to this day; the catapult used to launch the targets is a trap, while the targets themselves are clay pigeons.
It would have been possible that at Sandside birds intended as targets were housed in the dovecote loft, coming and going and feeding themselves. When needed by the guns, they could be shut in the building, and released through the lower shuttered windows to the marksmen standing in the field outside, with the added element of surprise that it would not be known through which opening the birds would appear. Within the cote the pigeon handler would at least have been out of danger... though not the birds!
BARROCK MAINS STEADING, B0WER PARISH (map ref. ND283626)
This is an imposing earlier nineteenth century, wide south facing steading range with grain loft and six segmental headed cart bays to the left of the central entrance, and a terrace of three farm workers' dwellings to the right. There is a centre squat tower rising above the ridge, over the arched entrance giving access to the inner court, with a chamber over lit by paired narrow windows with a row of pigeon flight holes above. The wallhead of the tower is adorned with crenellation and dummy pediments. Access was not possible but the flight holes indicate that this room was a dovecote, and though this appears to be the only one of its kind in Caithness, the dovecote as a central feature in large earlier nineteenth century steading ranges was not uncommon. Crackaig, Loth (1829) and Tongue Mains (1843) both in Sutherland, are northerly examples.
WESTFIELD, HALKIRK PARISH (map ref. ND064643)
In the garden behind Westfield House, is a square, 2-storey, whitewashed rubble buildihg with pyramidal roof, much like that at Sandside in size and appearance, but freestanding, except for a short length of (later) garden wall linking it to a neighbouring dwelling. It has a centre door in the south side and a further loft entrance in the east. Any evidence of flight holes is completely obliterated by excessive growth of ivy, a veritable tree! However, this cote appears to be a combined hen/pigeon house, where the hens would have been accommodated below with wooden nesting boxes and possibly a perching bar, and the doves above. Access to the dovecote, to collect both squabs and dung, would have been by ladder. Until the end of the nineteenth century pigeons were considered part of the poultry yard, and such accommodation was not uncommon. Farming handbooks contained instructions for the care of the birds and the provision of suitable housing (4). Mains of Eden, Banffshire, has a poultry house with separate rooms and yards for turkeys, geese and hens, with pigeons in a central tower (5).
These three dovecotes illustrate the strands of the final stages of pigeon husbandry. Despite the advent of root crops and improved grass which enabled more livestock to be overwintered, making fresh meat available most of the year for those who could afford it, the habit of breeding and eating pigeons lingered. The prestige element of the dovecote, in 1617 restricted by law to landowners, continued with its inclusion as a central architectural feature in the imposing farm steadings built by their successors. In Caithness it appears to have found yet another role to play, on the periphery of the later nineteenth century expanding Highland sporting scene.
E F E R E N C E S
Magazine XLI (1813)p.84.
3. Greener, Breach Loader (1892)
4. H. Stephens, Book of the Farm, 4th ed. (1890) Div.11, p429.
5. Designed by A. & W. Reid, Architect, Elgin, 1852